Drugs have consequences on the behavior and health of their users; that much is clear. But this article seeks to explain, through several illustrative examples, how the war on drugs has wrought severe consequences for civilization in general.
Drugs: a social problem or an individual choice?
To discuss drug use, we first should understand its origin. Contrary to common claims, many of the most widely used drugs, especially the oldest ones, were initially created with the best intentions: as medicine.
This includes marijuana, used as medicine since the 19th century, and cocaine, initially used for treating gout and later studied as an antidepressant by Freud. It also includes heroin, intended to replace morphine, easing pain and cough symptoms, earning its name as a “heroic remedy” and amphetamines, widely used in patients with nasal congestion problems but also recommended for weight loss and treating conditions like epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression, multiple sclerosis, brain injuries, and sexual dysfunction. Even ecstasy was used as a facilitator of communication between psychotherapists and patients in the 1970s, due to its entactogenic effect, and its liquid version used as an anesthetic.
Of course, good intentions alone can’t accomplish anything. Nor can drugs alone cause harm. The problem arises when individuals abuse substances — and when governments abuse power. That’s what led James Bovard, in his studies on the war on drugs, to conclude that “The war on drugs is essentially a civil war to defend the principle that politicians should have absolute power over what citizens put into their own bodies.”
Learn more about the war on
Al Capone’s empire
Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone was a businessman and gangster, considered one of the worst in American history. Co-founder of the Chicago Outfit, Capone controlled the city of Chicago through the Italian-American Mafia. However, much of his success is owed to the American Congress, which in January 1920 passed the American Prohibition Law, lasting until 1933.
With the prohibition of alcohol sales, it created the greatest and most lucrative opportunity for illicit enrichment in history. American breweries were acquired by mobsters at low prices, and they thrived. The infamous “speakeasy,” clandestine bars, were glamorous and frequented every day by high society, as were casinos which illegally provided alcohol.
In just the first five years of prohibition, it is estimated that there were over 200,000 clandestine bars and alcohol-providing casinos operating in major American cities. What aimed to prevent alcohol consumption, the “drug of the time,” became a multi-million-dollar, deadly machine.
Watch Learn Liberty’s video take on prohibition and the country’s top bootlegger, “The Man in the Green Hat.”
Woodstock: a milestone in drug use
The Woodstock Festival in 1969 was a landmark of American counterculture. Amid the controversies of the Cold War, the event, attended by nearly half a million young people, aimed to promulgate the idea that geopolitical situations should be resolved peacefully, and that wars should end.
However, it had no significant impact on the global war machine mainly due to the media’s focus on drug use and the poor health conditions at the festival.
The event became a representation of uncontrolled drug use. The fear of that episode repeating itself led to the demonization of drugs; if individuals couldn’t control themselves, the narrative went, the government would do it for them.
The war on drugs is declared
On June 17, 1971, with the fear of drug consumption spreading, President Richard Nixon declared that the country had a new enemy: narcotics. He announced a strong offensive, advocating complete intolerance toward drugs.
This act led to a massive incarceration of drug users, and the effects of Nixon’s declaration extended beyond American borders: the violence endured in Latin America today has its roots in the war on drugs, as the police there were empowered to use any means necessary to fight the “war.”
Meanwhile, the United States created task forces to train and equip not only its own police but also those from various other countries, providing heavy weaponry to confront drug producers and interrogation methods specifically aimed at identifying drug users — even though drug use itself harms only the consumer, without direct harm to others.
This influence persists today, despite legislative changes. In Mexico, for example, studies have found that 60 to 70 percent of drug crime suspects get tortured in one way or another.
The effects were diverse, and corruption was rampant. Until the 1970s, corruption on the drug front was limited, with some governors and mayors receiving bribes to protect drug trafficking, but still under the obligation to report them in case of investigation.
The war on drugs changed everything. The protection of drug trafficking was taken over by the very police and soldiers who should have been combating illegal operations.
With cartels now controlled by the police, American legislators lost control of the situation: the measures taken to combat drugs turned against their creators, increasing the number of drug trafficking leaders across America.
Pablo Escobar and his influence
During the drug war, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria pioneered industrial-scale cocaine trafficking. He started by providing protection for the Medellin Cartel but soon became its unquestioned leader, from 1970 until the early 1990s, overseeing every stage of cocaine production, from supplying coca paste in Andean countries to trading in the US.
Additionally, he demonstrated how extreme violence could force the government to negotiate with him.
During the peak of the cartel’s power in the 1980s and 1990s, Escobar controlled practically the entire cocaine supply chain. In the 1980s, it is estimated that the organization supplied 80 percent of all cocaine sent to the US, reaching 15 tons per day. During the same period, kidnappings carried out by guerrilla groups forced the state to collaborate with criminal groups, leading the Medellin Cartel to found the paramilitary group known as Muerte a Secuestradores (Death to Kidnappers).
Despite his wealth, Escobar was never well accepted by the upper classes. His attempts to enter the political elite were also frustrated; he even lost his seat as a deputy in Colombia. The situation worsened when the Cartel declared war on the Colombian state, leading to the assassination of the Colombian justice minister, Escobar’s extradition to the United States, and the deaths of various judges, police officers, and journalists.
For an alternative view on drug legalization, see Learn Liberty’s dynamic interview with Aaron Bossett, Founder of the Black Cannabis Commission:
Through violence, Escobar managed to pressure the state into abolishing the extradition of native Colombians. El Patron, as he was known, even negotiated his surrender to the authorities and was incarcerated in La Catedral, a prison he himself built, where he controlled the guards and had a house for his daughter’s visits. Escobar used his time in prison to reorganize the Medellin Cartel.
The consequences of the war on drugs
The above references to historical events were made to argue a simple point: the war failed. In all these instances, the state’s attempts to prohibit drugs not only failed but significantly worsened the problem. Prohibition created room for a monopoly, as drug traffickers who dared to maintain their production quickly took control of the entire market of the prohibited substance.
Newly unleashed police brutality in the war became uncontrollable, allowing the use of torture in investigations and arrests. (Speaking of which, racism, already present in American history, became barefaced, given the disparity between the imprisonment of black and white individuals, as well as the difference in investigation methods depending on the suspect’s skin color.)
The Global Drug Policy Index concluded that the punitive approach contradicts any perspective of human rights in policies aimed at eradicating the consumption, production, and trade of illegal drugs, classifying the currently applied policies on illegal drugs as “disastrous.” It is estimated that 22 percent of people imprisoned worldwide are in that situation for personal drug possession.
From laws prohibiting drug use to considering users as criminals, the global drug war has fueled trafficking, nourished the black market, and increased corruption. And in a final twist of irony, the attempt to prevent the production of drugs by prohibiting the transportation and use of their ingredients has deeply hindered progress in the healthcare field. After all, many drugs still start out as medicines, and many of the raw materials used in them could have curative potential for a wide range of diseases … if only they weren’t criminalized.
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